Method To Madness

The good mayor

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There are many people who have spoken about Jesse Robredo. He is a good man, they say, he is a kind man; he is generous and responsible and humble and honest and unwavering in his faith in the Filipino. He wore the same city uniform his people did. He replied to all messages and returned all calls, even from impertinent reporters who demanded he save the world immediately, today. He took the bus and wore an old watch and took the time to laugh with his aide. All of these things are true, and none of them captures the quality of the man who will be buried by thousands of his people in Naga City this week. This will be one of the many stories written about a good man, and I write this now, in words he spoke three years ago, as a way of keeping the faith.

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My name is Jesse Robredo. I was born in Naga and grew up in the city. I was working in Manila, in San Miguel Corp. I had my master’s in business administration at the University of the Philippines already. The career path that I was looking at was succeeding in a private company, then making a niche as a senior executive later on. What compelled me to join Edsa 1 was the assassination of Ninoy. I told myself, if this can be done in the Philippines to a prominent person, then something is wrong with this country. Maybe it’s high time that I became part of the group that will advocate change in the country. After Marcos’ death, I was invited to work in the government, so I did.

I became mayor of Naga by accident. Relatives asked me if I would like to run for mayor and I said to myself that there was nothing wrong in trying to be mayor of Naga. My parents are businessmen, and they did well in the city. I supposed we owed it that at least one member of the family should serve the city. Except for myself, no one is involved in politics. My being mayor is a way of giving back, as the city has been good to the family. I was confident that I had the capability, that I was academically prepared. So I told myself that probably given the opportunity, I can make a difference in the city.

My father lost his eyesight when I was four years old. And you know, he inspired all of us, because despite the difficulty, he raised the family. We’ve done well. Every time I see a challenge, I see my father. If he can do it, we can do it. If somebody who has that disability can do it, I don’t see the reason why we who are better equipped, cannot do it.

Naga has a proud constituency. We are not well endowed in the sense that we have a lot of natural attributes. It is a landlocked city. We are not the center of the regional government. I guess we have done well because the people are not happy with just being an ordinary local government unit. We are probably the only city where when you say you will raise taxes, people do understand that you need to raise taxes. In fact, in two occasions the Metro Naga Chambers of Commerce and Industry passed two resolutions saying, “City hall, you can go ahead and raise taxes.” We also raised rental rates at the public markets by 200 percent. The Vendors Federation—we have close to 2,000 market vendors in the city—passed a resolution saying, “City Hall, go ahead and raise the rental rates by 200 percent, but do it in two years.” So you have an intelligent constituency that will oppose you and agree with you, one that will be with you on your side if you need them, but will not tolerate mediocrity.

Naga is good not because of City Hall but because of the Nagueño. The Nagueño is good because City Hall has inspired and showed him that we can be as good as anyone. Whether it’s employment, investment, health or education, if you compare Naga and other localities in the region, I say we are very much ahead. But I can also tell you that young children who need access to a school in a far-flung village at the foot of Mt. Isarog now have the opportunity to go to the school. We look at the macro numbers, but we look at the faces as well.

Several groups have asked me to run for president. I guess I am realistic enough to say that given the kind of political environment that we have right now, given the kind of constituency that we have right now, it is almost impossible for someone who is not nationally recognized to win the presidency. I am practical enough to know I can’t. I don’t have any definite political plans after the mayorship, but I am using what little influence I have in helping candidates I believe will serve the country well.

Despite the difficulties, despite the limitations, despite the harassment, good governance is possible. By simply providing that inspiration, sometimes the subordinates are better than their leaders. In the case of Naga, I have done well not because I am smart, not because I am good, but because I have good people who discovered that they are better because they are inspired. The capacity to govern is not magical. It has to be cultivated over time. During the most difficult times of the city I stood for them. I work for them. I am the last guy on the street if there is a typhoon. I am the first guy who’s out to clean after the typhoon. I make sure everyone is home, and everyone is in their house before I decide to go back to my house. I always do what I say I will do, and I will not demand of others what I cannot do myself. Presence is important. I can say I am academically prepared and technically proficient, but I guess that’s not what matters. What matters is being accepted by the people as somebody who can lead, because you are not just a problem-solver, you are also an inspirational guide that they can go to.

Trust is important. People will be willing to make sacrifices if they trust their governors. People will understand the mistakes of their governors if they trust them. People will not believe their governors even if they are saying the right things, even if they are truthful, if they don’t trust the governors anymore. Have I made mistakes? I have. As mayor of the city, I would say that if only I can do it again, I’ll do it differently.

The most important ingredient of leadership is character. Proficiency can be learned, but it’s what is inside you that is hard to change. If I walk down the streets of Naga, I see people who are hopeful of the future, despite the difficult times that we are facing. I see people who have struggled, who have succeeded, because they relied on themselves.

The reason why I am very confident of the city is because we have proven that despite difficult times, we have prospered.

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This interview was conducted in July 2009, a year before Benigno Aquino III was elected to the presidency to appoint Jesse Robredo as interior and local government secretary. Portions of this interview were first aired over ANC and over ABS-CBN in “Storyline.”

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